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These stories were published Wednesday, April 6, 2005, in Vol. 5, No. 67
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Bank tellers are a bit picky
Keep a steady hand when you sign that check
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

Who has not gone to the bank only to be told the signature on the check they seek to cash does not conform to the example in the teller’s computer?

Inconvenient? Humiliating? Frustrating?

This is another peculiarity of the Costa Rican banking system. Tellers pay close attention to how a check is signed and reject those that they think vary slightly from the original signature on the account. 

Although an individual’s signature varies due to a number of factors, here the idea is to match what may have been signed seven years ago. Professional document examiners know that even a couple of alcoholic drinks can disrupt the handwriting flow. So in Costa Rica, if you drink, don’t sign.

The strict rule on signatures at the various banks usually is enforced by a junior teller who simply compares the check with the computer copy of the original signature. If there is the slightest variation, the check is rejected. However, a computerized signature doesn’t show details vital to a valid comparison.

This leads to some interesting situations. In one case, a person had two checks, each signed by the same account holder. One check was denominated in colons and the other was a dollar check.

The teller cashed the colon check but rejected the dollar check as an invalid signature, even though both were signed by the same person within 30 seconds and had been presented for payment by the same person.

Customers won’t find modern, computerized signature verification machines in Costa Rican banks. But the field is a vibrant one with a number of competing companies. Yet, even these may not be perfect.

"Although systems exist on the market, there are few that can promise sufficiently high accuracy rates at a reasonable level of efficiency," according to David Feil-Seifer and Benjamin B. Kimia. "Few have reached correct recognition rates above 95 percent, and those that are are extremely time consuming."

They are students of system engineering who did a project at Brown University, Providence, R.I.

The commercial computerized systems take into account up to 49 variables in a signature. 

The validity of signatures came into the news here when Alex Solís, then contralor general, was accused of signing legal documents with other persons’ names and then notarizing them with his own seal. The Judicial Investigating Organization found that he did that many times. He did it as a convenience to family members and not to defraud.

Still, the document investigators took several weeks to announce a finding to the Asamblea Legislativa which sought the study and fired Solís.

Signature verification is important outside banks and lawyer offices with the growth in sports memorabilia.

Authentic Autographs Unlimited will validate the signatures of sports figures on shirts, caps and other pieces of game paraphernalia

The American Board of Forensic Document Examiners, Inc., notes on its Web site that here is no college degree or major in forensic document examination. But the majority of examiners have undergraduate or master's degrees.

The minimum requirement for training in forensic document examination is a two-year apprenticeship in a recognized forensic laboratory or with an examiner in private practice who has previously received proper training, said the board.

Junior tellers are unlikely to have this experience.

There may be a more pragmatic motive for banks to reject customer’s signatures. The bulk of the rejected checks seem to be denominated in dollars, which sometimes are scarce. Checks presented for deposit nearly always are accepted. 

And when a check is rejected, the bank employee stamps the back to prevent the customer from shopping around for a more generous teller.

 
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From USA (704) 645-7078

 
Response from a reader
Phone service alternatives
are many, writer says

Dear A.M. Costa Rica:

Reading customer, or writer, complaints about phone service, I wondered why these people have not tried some of the many alternatives available today. I don't know if all of them are considered "legal" by the monopolizing government in CR, but here is a list:

- SKYPE (www.skype.com) Skype uses peer to peer (P2P) technology for hi rez audio calls and can connect to regular POTS lines if you get the Skype-out feature. It's free for communication between Skype users and only costs a fee when calling land/cell lines. It does use certain ports on your computer but not the same as VOIP. You can also instant message people and place conference calls. Doing a user search shows there are already people in CR using this.

- VOIP Most people already know about this. The big player being Vonage (www.vonage.com) but, there are numerous other carriers and not all of them use the same ports. There is Packet 8, AT&T, Verizon, BroadVoice and a slew of others. Do a Google for VOIP and you'll find options. Best of all, except for 911 (where available) the placement/geographic location of the phone adapter is not tied to the actual area code listed for the phone number. So you could put an adapter with a 678 USA area code in CR and it would ring just like it would in the U.S. Of course, you would be subject to whatever the VOIP provider charges for international calls if it was deemed as such, and you have to worry about government/utility port blocking; which brings me to the next part...

- SATELLITE INTERNET SERVICES This used to be how everyone had to communicate before things became cheaper for cell phones and land lines. If your land line service is crappy, your DSL probably is too. And if the CR ISP monopoly can't even keep it going with a 24/7 speed at 254kps, let alone 2MB + that we get off cable here in the States, why even pay these losers money? 

Satellite uplinks are available all over the world. Hughes being one of the major providers. If you can get DirecTV, you can get DirectWay. The only problems are cost (a little higher per month and upfront costs), weather (if KU band, rain can adversely block the signal; C band works better in the tropics) and getting it installed if the company does not have techs in your region. But, with a good digital signal meter and some good directions, anyone can install one.

- CELL PHONE If you can get a cellphone, why not use that as your main line. I used my cellphone for four years without a land line before I just recently got Vonage for a second line. I still use my cellphone more. It may not have the best signal or quality all the time, but if your land line doesn't either, what's the difference? Certain GSM carriers support data over cellphone lines for Internet as well.

It may seem hopeless in certain regions, but if people band together and use one or a combination of the mentioned services, I'm sure they can find better quality service. The only way to change the way things are going with communications and information technology is stop paying money to the people who are ripping you off. Eventually, if enough people band together and make a change, that company will either go bankrupt or have to change the way they treat people and do business.

Nick Vega 
Atlanta Ga. 


Expat association plans
charity picnic April 23

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Association of Residents of Costa Rica will have its annual charity picnic Saturday, April 23, at Finca El Coyol in La Garita.

The association membership is mainly expats who have located or are locating to Costa Rica.

The picnic begins at 11 a.m. with the usual picnic fare of hamburgers, hot dogs, and soft drinks. There also is a cash bar for wine and beer.

Organizers promise games, races and bingo. Also, the finca, which is a donation by Banco Cuscatlan has a swimming pool.

The entry fee is 1,000 colons ($2.10) and 1,500 colons at the door. Children under 12 are free. Information is available at 233-8068 or 221-2053.

Organizers stress that all profits of the picnic go to charity.

‘Play it again, Sam’
is next production 

By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Little Theatre Group will present "Play it again, Sam" in English weekends from May 20 to June 5. Sunday is a benefit for the Women’s Club of Costa Rica. 

The work is a nostalgic play on films in Hollywood's heyday, said a release from the theater group.

Information is available at 265-5085 or at the box office in Bello Horizonte: 355-1623

Professional Directory
A.M. Costa Rica's professional directory is where business people who wish to reach the English-speaking community may invite responses. If you are interested in being represented here, please contact the editor.


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A.M. Costa Rica
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U.S. plans to tighten up its borders even more in stages
Special to A.M. Costa Rica staff

WASHINGTON, D.C. — In a change from previous law, travel between the United States and the rest of the Western Hemisphere will now require passports or other secure, accepted forms of documentation, says the U.S. government.

The new requirements are designed to strengthen border security and make it faster and simpler for U.S. citizens and foreign travelers to both enter and leave the United States, the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said Tuesday.

The requirements affect all U.S. citizens traveling within the Western Hemisphere who do not currently possess valid passports. They also affect foreign nationals who previously were not required to present a passport to enter the United States. In addition, the rules affect citizens of Canada, Mexico, and Bermuda.

The new plan, called the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, is required under a law signed by President George Bush Dec. 17. That law, called the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, represents a change for U.S. citizens and citizens of other countries, including Canada, who were not previously required to present a passport to enter the United States. Other forms of identification, less secure than a passport, had historically been accepted.

Maura Harty, assistant secretary of State for consular affairs, said the United States recognizes the implications that the new travel requirements "might have for industry, business, and the general public, as well as our neighboring countries, and they are important partners in this initiative."

Randy Beardsworth of the Homeland Security Department said the goal behind the new travel requirements is to "strengthen border security and expedite entry into the United States for U.S. citizens and legitimate foreign visitors."

Beardsworth, who is his department's acting under secretary for border and transportation security, said that by ensuring that travelers possess secure documents, such as a passport, his agency will be able to conduct "more effective and efficient interviews" at U.S. borders.

The State Department said travelers within the Western Hemisphere are encouraged to obtain a passport because it offers the most security features. However, the border-crossing card — also known as a "laser visa" — will be acceptable as a substitute for a passport and a visa for citizens of Mexico traveling into the United States from across the Mexican border.

Other documents that will be accepted are international 

frequent-traveler cards, used in programs known by the acronyms SENTRI, NEXUS, and FAST. Although the three programs vary slightly, they are all based on the same principle of pre-screening and identifying low-risk travelers so they can cross the international border without having to go through the traditional inspections process.

No other document is currently available that will be an acceptable substitute for a passport or the three frequent-traveler cards.

The accepted documents must establish the citizenship and identity of the traveler through electronic data verification, and will include significant security features. Ultimately, all documents used for travel to the United States are expected to include biometric technology — such as fingerprint identification — that can be used to authenticate the document.

The new law will be enforced in phases, in recognition that the law represents a significant change in historical practice for many travelers. The law's first phase, beginning Dec. 31, will apply to all travel (air/sea) to and from the Caribbean, Bermuda, and Central and South America.

The second phase, beginning Dec. 31, 2006, applies to all air and sea travel to or from Mexico and Canada.

The third phase, beginning Dec. 31, 2007, applies to all air, sea, and land border crossings.

Because border communities will potentially be the most affected by the changes, the new law specifically states that the concerns of those communities will be considered. With this in mind, the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security are issuing an advance notice of proposed rule-making in the U.S. Federal Register. The notice will provide vital information about the plan and request the public's comment on the new rules.

The Federal Register is the official daily publication for rules, proposed rules and notices of U.S. federal agencies and organizations.

The State Department's Maura Harty said the advanced notice of proposed rule-making "will allow these affected publics to voice concern and provide ideas for alternate documents acceptable under the law."

Harty said the "overarching need is to implement this legal requirement in a way that strengthens security while facilitating the movement of persons and goods."

The U.S. government expects to issue a more formal rule about the new travel requirements in the Federal Register later in 2005, following review of the public's comments regarding the first phase of the plan.


 
In case you missed it:
A.M. Costa Rica, April 5, 2005
Our readership more than doubles in one year
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

A.M. Costa Rica set another readership record in March when the newspaper registered 2.16 million hits. That was a 22.9 percent increase over February and a 106 percent increase over March 2004, the first month the newspaper exceeded a million hits.

Other statistics had similar increases.

Some 397,368 individual pages were viewed by 99,351 readers. And 45,435 of those readers were registered as unique, which means they were only counted once regardless of how many times they visited the pages in a single day. 

The statistics are maintained by the Internet service provider in the United States where A.M. Costa Rica is hosted. The hosting company keeps track of visits independent of A.M. Costa Rica.

The statistical programs screen out hits and visits by mechanical means, other computers and automated Web crawlers.

The statistics show that the average viewer sees about four pages at every visit to the paper. 

Said Jay Brodell, editor:

"Our dramatic increase in readership over the last three and a half years is no surprise to our advertisers who are getting more and more business from the wave of retirees and would-be retirees who are looking at Costa Rica as a new home and need solid, daily information.

"It’s a new world, and our progressive advertisers recognize that."

A.M. Costa Rica statistics are available on a page that is updated every month HERE!


 
Venezuela beefs up its laws against insulting politicos
Special to A.M. Costa Rica

Across Latin America, a growing number of governments are repealing so-called "disrespect" (desacato) laws that unfairly protect officials from public scrutiny and criticism. 

In Venezuela, however, the government is moving in the opposite direction, approving amendments to the country's criminal code that press freedom groups warn may further restrict the public's ability to monitor government actions. 

Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières, RSF) and the Committee to Protect Journalists have expressed concern over the amended criminal code, which took effect March 16. 

The amendments extend the scope of existing provisions that make it a criminal offence to insult or show disrespect for the president and other government authorities, says Human Rights Watch. Currently, the president, vice-president, government ministers, state governors and supreme court judges are protected from disrespect under the law. 

The amendments extend protection to more government officials, including the attorney general, national assembly legislators and senior military leaders. Anyone convicted of disrespecting these officials can be jailed for up to 20 months. 

Other amendments increase the penalties for 

defamation and libel, notes Human Rights Watch. Penalties for defamation have been increased from a maximum of 30 months of imprisonment to a new maximum of four years if the statement is made in a document distributed to the public. 

Those convicted would also have to pay a fine of up to 2,000 tax units (currently equivalent to more than $27,000). The penalty for libel increases from a maximum jail term of three months to a new maximum of two years. 

The criminal code amendments contravene international standards on freedom of expression, said Eduardo Bertoni, the Organization of American States' special rapporteur on free expression.  The human rights expert says the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the human rights wing of the OAS, considers desacato laws to be incompatible with the American Convention on Human Rights. Venezuela is a signatory to the convention. 

"Desacato laws provide greater protection to government officials than to private citizens, in direct violation of the fundamental principle of a democratic system that subjects the government to controls, such as public scrutiny, to prevent and control abuses of its coercive powers," says Bertoni. 

In recent years, Argentina, Paraguay and Peru have repealed desacato laws, while Chile and Panama are considering legislation to do so. Costa Rica is trying to modify its law.


 
OAS secretary general election put off to Monday due to pope's funeral
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services

The 34-nation Organization of American States has postponed choosing a new chief, saying many foreign ministers who had planned to attend the election session in Washington are instead heading to Rome for the pope's funeral. 

The organization’s Permanent Council had scheduled an election to choose a new secretary general on Thursday, but the vote will now take place Monday.

The top candidates for the post are Mexico's 

conservative foreign secretary, Luis Ernesto Derbez, Chile's socialist interior minister, José Miguel Insulza, and a pro-business former Salvadoran president with close ties to Washington. Francisco Flores. 

The post became vacant when former Costa Rican president Miguel Ángel Rodriguez Echeverria resigned to face corruption charges at home in October.

President Abel Pacheco says that Costa Rica favors Flores, but a number of South American states are backing the Chilean in an effort to diminish U.S. influence in the hemispheric organization.


 
 
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